Arkansas is now one of a handful of states that boasts universal high-speed broadband connectivity to its public schools, no matter how rural and isolated.
On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson connected a cable, and the Glen Rose School District went online with a new high-speed broadband network. The district joined the rest of that educational sector in the state -- all 1,064 schools and 477,000 students -- in broadband access.
The project was the result of years of public policy debate over whether private providers or a public network was the right answer for the state's schools. Even after lawmakers declined to open up the public network, the initial plan for getting private companies to bid on parts of the project by region was scrapped.
Still, when work finally started in July 2015 using private providers, officials said the network would be completed two years later. On Thursday, officials touted the accomplishment as a promise fulfilled.
Hutchinson said the school broadband project will have a particularly large impact on rural schools that have not had the same access to technology as more urban districts.
"This is a school ... that could be caught on the wrong side of the digital divide if we do not provide the services that were needed," he said in Glen Rose High School's auditorium.
The high-speed broadband connections have become necessary for standardized testing, online courses and online field trips.
At Beebe Elementary School, for example, teachers said in interviews last year, students had visited a South African penguin hospital, learned from NASA officials, spoken with New Zealanders to understand time zones and conducted a virtual career day with former students from Louisiana to California.
Evan Marwell, founder of the California-based EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that tracks school connectivity nationally, said Arkansas managed to get its schools connected at a "remarkable" pace.
"The reason you were able to get there so quickly is you had really strong state leadership, strong state funding and a really strong service community that got mobilized," he said. "There are not a lot of states that have all three of those things."
In a 2016 report, EducationSuperHighway said just five states could boast universal broadband access in their schools under a federal standard of 100 kilobits per second per student. Those states are Hawaii, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Of those, only Hawaii and Kentucky are using all fiber-optic cables, which can handle much faster speeds than antiquated copper wiring can.
As of Thursday, Arkansas boasted connections of 200 kilobits per second per student -- double the national standard -- on all fiber-optic cables. The fiber-optic lines and network equipment purchased by the state can handle 1,000 kilobits per second per student without replacement.
Of the other states with universal connectivity for their schools, none has a lower ranking for its overall population. Arkansas is No. 49 in Internet access for its residents, according to U.S. News and World Report.
In Malvern, Tim Holicer, superintendent of the Glen Rose School District, said its old Internet connection had been a problem despite its proximity to urban areas like Little Rock.
"Educators have always used what they had to teach what needed to be taught regardless of the lack of materials -- and that does include bandwidth. Teachers are going to get the job done," he said. "However, having the appropriate amount of bandwidth allows us to do the job more effectively and incorporate technology needed for our students' future."
In total, the state will pay about $14 million per year for the new network, with the majority of the cost reimbursed by the federal E-Rate program. It paid about $13 million a year for the old, much slower network provided by the state.
Bandwidth on the new Arkansas network costs $3.70 per megabit. Marwell of the EducationSuperHighway said the national average is $7 per megabit.
The old Arkansas network cost $286 per megabit, according to a 2014 EducationSuperHighway study. However, schools purchased roughly 95 percent of their bandwidth from the private market. That cost about another $11.30 per megabit.
Educators and public officials had known for years that the old network -- established in the early 1990s -- was inadequate. However, figuring out a plan to update it proved contentious.
"If you have followed the need to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to the K-12 school systems here in Arkansas, you know what a winding road this has been," said Yessica Jones, director of the state Department of Information Systems.
In 2014, then-Gov. Mike Beebe urged lawmakers to change a law that prohibited school districts from using the public network that supplies high-speed access to public colleges and universities.
The recommendation came as the need for enhanced broadband capabilities at school districts had ramped up. The Legislature mandated through Act 1280 of 2013 that every district offer at least one online class.
However, telecommunications companies argued that allowing the school districts to connect to the public network would take away their private customers -- the school districts -- and force the companies that own the cable to provide service to the schools through the state rental price -- essentially putting the companies in direct competition with the state.
They said the public network also would be prohibitively costly.
Lawmakers never lifted the ban on connecting to the public university network.
So, in December 2014, the state Department of Education asked broadband companies to bid to provide access to schools in regions of the state.
That was a move that took Marwell by surprise. He was advising the state at the time.
"Regional bidding excludes smaller providers who are too small to bid on an entire region but could have provided the service for a smaller geographic area maybe at a lower cost," he said at the time. "The state said [the regional approach] is the only way they can ensure all of the districts get service ... but we don't actually believe that."
The Department of Education's request for bids was scrapped when Hutchinson entered office in January 2015. The Department of Information Systems put out a new request on Feb. 9, 2015, that did not contain the regional requirement.
It took two rounds of bidding to secure a connection for almost every school district. Only two school districts didn't receive a bid from a service provider -- the Cleveland County and Woodlawn school districts -- both based in Rison, roughly 25 miles southwest of Pine Bluff.
TDS Telecommunications -- then the local Internet service provider -- did not initially bid to do the work. However, the company sold its Cleveland County operations to ARK-O, a division of SGO Broadband based in Seneca, Mo. The department was able to work with the new owners and Windstream, which maintains a hub for other school connections in Fordyce.
In an interview, Hutchinson said he had to persuade the Federal Communications Commission not to pull the plug on federal E-Rate funding.
"We had shifted direction a couple times in Arkansas," he said. "They were concerned that we were not spending the money wisely -- wasting money -- and we didn't have a good plan to get it done. They were frustrated with us."
Jerry Jones, chief ethics officer at Acxiom Corp. and the former chairman of Faster Arkansas -- a committee established by Beebe to study school connectivity -- said he believes that the public-network option would have been cheaper.
However, "the objective of everyone who was working on this was to obtain high-speed broadband access for the benefit of every public school student and teacher in Arkansas. That was achieved. And we're very, very pleased with that," he said.
"It was an initiative of Gov. Beebe to get it started with Faster Arkansas. I was very pleased that Gov. Hutchinson picked up the issue and drove it to completion."
Of the public network, Marwell of EducationSuperHighway said he believes that it would have been more expensive than contracting with private telecommunications providers.
Hutchinson, who noted he went to a rural school, paused when asked how having access to broadband would have affected his education.
"I'm not sure that's even explicable," he said.
"Technology has not changed education in the sense of education is a teacher with knowledge imparting information to students. That concept is always the same. But you've got to adjust to the new tools and the way kids learn today, and kids learn through technology. They learn every day. Education is continuous. It doesn't stop in the classroom. They go home, and they continue to look at the Internet."
A Section on 07/21/2017